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'Black Against Empire' tells the history of Black Panthers

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. provide an authoritative if flawed history of the party.

January 24, 2013|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

For deeper psychological insight into the Panthers leadership, however, you'll have to read other books — Elaine Brown's excellent 1992 memoir "A Taste of Power" comes to mind. Men with personalities as big and brazen as those of Seale and Cleaver deserve a thorough character study: Unfortunately, there isn't much nuance to the portrayal of those men in "Black Against Empire."

Instead, Bloom and Martin give us Panthers leaders who are, for the most part, idealists without noticeable flaws. That points to the most dramatic failing in "Black Against Empire" — the authors' lack of critical distance from their subjects. Too much of the analysis in "Black Against Empire" is written in the romantic rhetoric of a bygone era of American radical discourse. Many passages read as if they were written in the pages of the Panthers' official publication, "The Black Panther," circa 1970.

The authors describe King as a faded "insurgent," a label he most certainly would have rejected. And when a wave of urban conflagrations helps fill the Panthers' ranks, Bloom and Martin describe the political moment thusly: "In the summer of 1967, the floodgates lifted, and the dream of black nationhood poured through the channels of urban rebellion."

In the end, however, Bloom and Martin offer a balanced assessment of why the Panthers movement began to fade quickly after 1970.

It wasn't just J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI and assorted police forces that undermined the Panthers — though reams of newly released documents offer ample proof of the effective work of police-hired provocateurs. Factionalism, "adventurism" and "criminal activity" also undid the movement.

Above all, the Black Panthers quickly unraveled because the country itself changed so quickly, Bloom and Martin write. With the Vietnam War winding down, and the War on Poverty and affirmative action ramping up, the Panthers' confrontational style started to wear thin.

"The political 'system' had been inoculated against the Panthers' politics," Bloom and Martin write.

The most important contribution of "Black Against Empire" is simply to treat the Black Panthers as the serious political and cultural force they were. It was a movement of intelligent, explosive dreamers who believed that to die for their cause (as many did) was to become "heavier than a mountain."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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